Animation is the production of any image that can depict motion. This is usually achieved by the development of individual images with slight sequential changes that come together to create the illusion of movement.
The Origins of Animation
In reality, no one knows when the history of animation timeline actually started however we do have evidence of animated cave paintings from the Paleolithic era, which dates the start between 2.5 million and 20,000 years ago.
From Egyptians through to Leonardo de Vinci, the use of a sequence of pictures to depict movement has been scattered throughout the ages. But it was only with the development of devices to view these pictures at speed, was animation in its truest form actually born.
Early Animation History
The 15th Century saw the first Magic Lanterns which used projection from candle light to cast multiple images at speed to create the illusion of movement.
1824 saw the development of the Thaumatrope which used a pair of strings to successively flip over a piece of circular card and use the images on either side to create the illusion that the picture was actually moving.
From this time, a series of inventions arose that enabled the appearance of motion from still pictures. These included the Phenakistoscope, the Zoetrope, the Praxinoscope and even the flip book, which all created fantastic results. But all this was put in the shade when the first truly cinematographic projected image was created in 1883.
The Development of Modern Day Animation
Though the famous Kinetoscope invented by Thomas Eddison in 1883, and the Cinematograph created by the Lumière Brothers a year later launched animation into popular culture, the first truly moving images were seen in Paris at the Musee Grevin. The film was exhibited by inventor Charles-Émile Reynaud using his Theatre Optique and depicted of a beau presenting his sweetheart with a simple bunch of flowers.
But as the century was ending, the animated world was looking towards the Vitascope, a machine created by Thomas Armat to project the films made by Thomas Edison, to become the basis for the movie projector of the future.
The Rise of Stop-Motion Animation
The stop-motion animation technique uses a process of small incremental movements in between each shot to create a series of images that can portray even impossible feats to entertain its audience.
Though the first model based stop-motion animation film was presented in 1899, it uses fundamentally the same philosophy of real time photography techniques that have made Aardman Animations the success they are today.
This technique came into the mainstream after the development of the Haunted Mansion film by J. Stuart Blackton which used flexible models to create the images he required.
Riding on the back of his success, Blackton then went on to produce the Humurous Phases of Funny Faces, the first stop-motion feature using drawn animation.
But if the process of redrawing the images for every cell seemed like too much work, the efforts of Emile Cohl in France was set to change this process. In his revolutionary films Phantasmagorie and En Route, he used cut out images to create the scene rather than drawings. This meant his silhouettes simply had to be moved for the next frame, significantly reducing production time.
In later years stop motion techniques became favoured amongst special effects teams with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and the classic King Kong (1933) using such techniques to bring their monsters to life.
In 1912, the world was treated to what was known as the first ‘puppet’ animated production when Ladislaw Starewicz started his collection of humorous films. But instead of using traditional puppets, Starewicz attached wires to small beetles and other dead insects to create a truly unique but highly entertaining cast.
At the highpoint of his fame, the polish film producer created The Cameraman’s Revenge a highly complex plot which showed the depth of character and story telling that was possible within animation. This is a philosophy that has continued to live in the hearts of animation film makers across the globe.
The Love Of Gertie
Once it was proven what a profound effect animation could have on an audience, the next step was to actually encourage the viewer to build a rapport with the character who could then illicit an emotional response his viewers.
The development of Gertie The Dinosaur in 1914 went on to do just this. After creating a loveable and emotional character, American cartoonist Winsor McCay stood on the stage next to the film and combined real life action from himself with the animated response from this loveable dinosaur. When McCay chastised the dinosaur, Gertie was seen to cry, when he commanded the creature, Gertie was seen to respond. And at the end of the film, McCay himself walks behind the projection only for his animated character to appear on screen and ride off on the back of the dinosaur. This created a tremendous reaction from the audience who were now starting to see the power of the animated film.
In the same year as Gertie was first introduced, another turning point in animated theatre was set to take place at John Bray Studios. Though founder John Bray was behind the development of the project, it was actually employee Earl Hurd that devised the revolutionary cell technique which changed the future of animation.
By using transparent celluloid sheets for each layer of the image, it became possible to use certain elements of a picture in multiple shots, without repeatedly drawing them. This reduced the level of labour required for each image and therefore allowed animation to become much less labour intensive and more consistent.
The Arrival of Betty Boop
By 1915, the possibilities for animation were clear, but the need to reduce the time it took to create each film was greater than ever. However the Fleisher brothers, Max and Dave, were waiting in the wings with their Rotoscope.
The Rotoscope enabled the animator to trace a cell of real time imagery as the basis for each individual drawing. This provided the framework for the film which would also ensure that movement and structure were much closer to real life activity.
Though in today’s animation, computers are used to replicate this process, the concept of basing animated film on a pre recorded real life images is something that is used in almost every field of animated imagery today.
Thanks to this revolutionary concept, Fleischer studios were able to create animated classics including Out of the Inkwell, Popeye the Sailor and, of course, everybody’s favourite gal Betty Boop.
Animation Moves into Features
Once the first animated feature film was made in 1917, the barriers opened for a wealth of loveable rogues to be launched onto projection screens across the world. El Apostol from Argentina remains the first animated feature film ever made but it was soon followed by Felix The Cat (1920) by American animator Otto Mesmer who was part of Australian born Pat Sullivan’s Studios. The Felix character was not only a pioneer on the animated screen but was also the first to be merchandised, creating further economic opportunities for animated promotion.
However nothing was ever going to be the same when a small studio known as Laugh-O-Grams was created in 1922 by an unknown artist called Mr Walt Disney. From the second floor of a small building in Kansas City, Missouri great names in animation such as Hugh Harman, Rudolph Ising and Ub Iwerks, were working with Disney to create small short films on contract.
Though the team were able to create Tommy Tuckers Tooth for local dentist Thomas McCrum, the company went into bankruptcy in 1923 and Disney himself sold his own movie camera to pay for a one way ticket to Hollywood. Thankfully, as Disney made this all important move, he had under his arm a real of animation that he had been working on with his team, entitled Alice’s Wonderland.
Alice became somewhat a saviour for Disney who’s first job in Los Angeles was a series of Alice Comedies. He also became the pioneer of animated sound films and created the Song Car-Tunes films in the 1920s which were recorded with a synchronised sound track.
However it was in 1928 with the launch of Steamboat Willie that the true supremacy of Disney animation first came to light. Though Warner Brothers had released The Jazz Singer the previous year, which was the first film to combine sound and images, this was the first film with a full length soundtrack which featured not only music but voice and sound effects printed directly onto the film.
Thanks to Mrs Lillian Disney, the mouse that was to become Mortimer actually became Mickey Mouse and is now one of the most recognisable cartoon characters in the world.
The Battle for Supremacy
As the 1930’s started, Disney was enjoying a time of overwhelming success but that didn’t mean the competition wasn’t chomping at the bit to take over. Universal Studios created a film using two strip technicolour in The King Of Jazz while Warner Brothers Studio provided the world with the first full length animated feature film with sound (Peludópolis).
Disney was able to take control again in 1932with the first Technicolor production Flowers and Trees, a feat others would be unable to match for another two years.
The Arrival of the Looney Tunes
In 1934 the introduction of Looney Tunes from Tex Avery at the Warner Brothers Studio brought slapstick humour into the animation theatre, targeting animation at a much older age group and therefore vastly increasing the market potential of such a production. Even to this day, Looney Tunes remains one of the most popular animation series ever produced and paves the way for people of all age to enjoy animated film.
The Fork in the Road
While Warner Brothers was enjoying outstanding success with its theatre shorts, Disney was moving further and further into high quality animated films.
1934 saw the creation of the multiplane camera by Urb Irwek, one of the original Disney animators. This provided the ability to create realistic three dimensional backgrounds on film for the very first time.
The company were then to play another trump card in 1937 with the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first truly successful animated full length film that ensured the popularity of animated film exploded.
From Big Screen to Small Screen
As television became the medium of choice for the masses, especially following the launch of colour screens in the 1950s, the need to satisfy an every growing demand for animated entertainment led Hanna-Barbera to release the first ever full length television program to solely feature animated material.
Starting with Huckleberry Hound, this animation team went on to dominate the animated television market for nearly thirty years with greats including Yogi Bear, The Flintstones, The Smurfs and Scooby Doo.
But as more audiences chose to stay in their homes and watch their animated entertainment on TV, Warner Brothers were seeing a fall in demand for theatre shorts which caused such a backlash with the organisation that they boycotted the television market for a further 20 years.
The Launch of Computer Animation
Though stop-motion and drawn animation had been used for years, the 1950s saw the start of computer graphics age which was to change the face of animation forever.
During this period, experts including John Whitney and Ivan Sutherland were developing the first animated sequences for use in film, while it was Ken Knowlton in 1964 that started developing the techniques which the most modern day computer animation techniques depend on.
By the early 1970’s the University of Utah produced the first animated hand and facial features which paved the way to the use of computer technology in today’s animated sequences.
By 1982 the film Tron by Walt Disney could see computer animation working alongside real life imagery to create a futuristic and contemporary film that really tested the boundaries of this medium.
During the rest of the 80’s no film seemed worth its value if it didn’t include at least some computer graphics. Collaboration between animation and real time film was set to become a standard which culminated in 1988 with the classic, Who Framed Roger Rabbit film where real life actors worked alongside animated characters both in the real work and in ‘Toon Town’.
Computer morphing techniques were even able to ensure that low rating films such as Willow in 1988 gained more attention than they deserved when we saw hands changing into pig hooves under our very eyes.
Animation in the Nineties
The nineties also saw a new revolution in the animation market with cartoons aimed directly at adults. Pioneered by Bart Simpson and his family, animated cartoons were no longer solely for children, people of any age were drawn to a medium that related directly to their lifestyle.
And though 1992 saw the release of first completely hand drawn animated feature film by American animator Bill Plympton, The Tune the nineties was really all about another the next big thing, CGI.
Bringing Animation Up To Date
Created entirely in a computer, Computer Generated Imagery (GCI) uses the concepts of stop-motion animation to devise three dimensional models within the computer. These models are then moved in small incremental stages, just like traditional stop-motion techniques, to create the series of images that give the impression of motion.
It enabled films such as Terminator and Jurassic Park to develop unbelievable effects without the need for life sized models or stilted acting, but this was only the start of the revolution. Everything was soon going to take a new direction as the world of CGI found a new leader, Pixar Animation.
Pixar Animation Studios started in 1979 as part of Lucasfilm. Originally known as the Graphics Group, the company developed the RenderMan software which has become an industry standard in CGI development.
Though the ground breaking Luxo Jr. film which followed the life of a junior desk lamp inspired the world, the true start of the full CGI age and the launch of modern computer based technology came with the arrival of Buzz and Woody in the 1995 film Toy Story. This was the first fully animated film produced solely in CGI and thanks to its success, Pixar have become one of the most lucrative animation companies in history.
The Future of Animation
The variety of techniques now available to animators means the future is truly open.
The use of computers in animated film has created a new door for the future and with further advances in technology, the images used are become more lifelike and realistic than ever before.
Animation is the medium in which anything and everything is possible and so how will the future pan out? We don’t yet know, but we can’t wait to find out.